Heirlooms reimagined

People Style

March 1, 2023

Giving grandma’s vintage brooch a glow-up: Local jewelers turn sentimental pieces into modern, wearable treasures.

by Amanda Lea

A number of years ago, Lib Jones noticed a lady at a convention wearing a necklace with a watering-can pendant. Jones, an avid gardener, admired the necklace and asked the woman where she got it. The woman told her it was a gift.

But the necklace lingered in her mind, says Jones, who with her husband, Tom Nunnenkamp, has spent the last 15 years transforming their 2.25-acre south Charlotte yard into an urban oasis affectionately known as MapleWalk (“Woodland wonder,” April 2022).

Years later, when her mom passed away, Jones inherited several pieces of jewelry from her mother’s collection. “There were a few pieces I really liked, and I held onto those,” Jones says. “But the other pieces just weren’t me — I knew I was never going to wear them.” Jones sold a few pieces to Perry’s Diamonds & Estate Jewelry and used the money to create her own watering-can necklace. She worked with a jewelry designer through Elizabeth Bruns in SouthPark to bring her vision to life.

It’s not a new concept for people to work with designers to create custom engagement rings and personalized pendants. But repurposing heirlooms into something you will cherish rather than letting them lay forgotten in a drawer has gained more traction in recent years. 

Jenny McHugh, founder and owner of Campbell + Charlotte, says the interest in reworking heirloom pieces has picked up since the pandemic. “People were stuck at home, cleaning out drawers and safes and finding things they forgot they had,” says McHugh, who works with clients to create bespoke pieces from family heirlooms and old gemstones. “It was also a difficult time, when we were all a little more sentimental and wanting to feel close to our family.”

Perry’s Diamonds & Estate Jewelry has been helping people redesign sentimental pieces since Ernest Perry and his wife Priscilla established the SouthPark institution in 1977. Hadley Perry, chief operating officer, says engagement rings are their most popular request. 

“Whether it’s resizing a great-grandmother’s ring, placing a family diamond into an existing semi-mount, or designing a new ring with an arrangement of gemstones, Perry’s on-site jewelers help clients pay tribute to the past while representing the present,” Perry says.

Custom redesigned heirlooms by Campbell + Charlotte

Exploring the possibilities 

There are many ways you can reinvent a vintage piece. A watch can be turned into a necklace, a brooch can become a statement ring, and wedding bands can be transformed for a vow renewal. You can turn a large piece into several smaller ones, repurpose a collection of gemstones into a unique statement item, modernize an existing piece, or melt down the metal from an item and create something entirely from scratch. 

One of McHugh’s favorite custom projects is a line of rings that are big and bold, with a flat surface on top to showcase an array of gemstones. McHugh sketches several layout options using a variety of stones, often taken from multiple pieces but sometimes incorporating personal touches, such as a family member’s birthstone. The result is a funky, one-of-a-kind block ring that is sure to make a statement.

Repurposing jewelry can also be more cost-effective and sustainable. Rather than buying new pieces to replace the ones you no longer reach for, you can give your old favorites a glow-up so they become cherished go-tos. Many of us have treasures lying in a drawer or jewelry box that are begging to be revitalized.

Knowing the process

Determining how to repurpose those treasured heirlooms can be a bit intimidating.  

“People are typically not redesigning jewelry every day, so it can understandably be an overwhelming process,” McHugh says. “Clients often come to me with a piece that holds sentimental value but just doesn’t fit their personal aesthetic. But they may not have clarity on where to go from there.” You don’t need a background in design to embark on the process, but it helps to know what to expect. 

The initial step is a consultation, or discovery session, with a custom jeweler or designer, where you share information about the piece and any ideas you may have. This can include some background about when and how you came to own the item. This is also a great time to discuss your budget and the anticipated timeline, and ask how the designer will keep your jewels and gems safe while the piece is being crafted. Whether her clients have inherited a memento from a family member or come across several pieces in a safe, McHugh says the discovery phase helps them envision what they want — and how they will use it. 

McHugh also uses the discovery phase to help narrow the design direction she will take with the reimagined piece. It’s helpful if clients bring in a few photos of their preferred aesthetic so she can get a feel for their personality. She also asks clients what type of piece they have in mind and how they use their jewelry (for example, to enhance a formal look, or for everyday wear). McHugh has a gallery of past work she shares in the initial meeting to give clients an idea of how it all comes together, but is quick to note that the process is deeply personal.

“I want my clients to be very honest with me,” McHugh says. “You may not love everything about previous pieces I’ve worked on. This is your piece; it has to work for you.”

After the consultation, your designer or jeweler will typically share several designs or sketches for you to review. Once you share your feedback and any necessary tweaks, your creation will begin to take shape. In the production phase, your vintage piece is carefully disassembled, the metal is cast and the stones are set. 

Lib Jones, shown with her husband Tom Nunnenkamp, had a custom watering-can pendant created.

Passing it on

Creating custom pieces from existing jewelry is a nuanced process, the jewelers say. It’s more than just resetting a diamond. It’s listening to the client’s story — which can range from wistful to heartbreaking — and working together to make something that is modern yet meaningful. 

“It can be a very emotional process,” McHugh says. “These are treasures people have passed down for generations. Which means one piece can carry generations of stories. I love being part of a design process that continues the story.”

Perry says what she loves about her job is seeing how new life can be breathed into something from more than 100 years ago. 

“It’s pretty cool to see how something from the past can be transformed and passed down for even more generations to come,” Perry says. “We’re honored to be part of that process.”

No matter the style or story, jewelry can unite fragments of past generations — each piece stringing together narratives to create deeply personal expressions of who we are and who we continue to become. 

For Jones, the ability to create a personalized memento honoring two things close to her heart — her mother, Margie, and her passion for gardening — was the best of both worlds.

“Repurposing my mom’s jewelry was a great option,” Jones says. “It’s one of my favorite pieces now. And it’s almost like getting a hug from my mom when I wear it.”  SP

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